What is the Observing Self?

I’ve been reading ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harris. I’m becoming a fan as I turn the pages and work through the exercises. This book about using ‘The Observing Self’ to become comfortable with your thoughts and feelings could help many people. What or who is this self and what does it do?

I read this on ceatextia.com:

The observing self

For some years, whilst teaching psychotherapy, we have been using the term observing self — awareness of awareness itself. The observing self is different from our thinking self, emotional self or functioning (physical) self. It is outside these, yet experiences all of them. Arthur Deikman expressed this beautifully as follows: “The most important fact about the observing self is that it is incapable of being objectified. The reader is invited to try and locate that self to establish its boundaries. The task is impossible; whatever we can notice or conceptualise is already an object of awareness, not awareness itself, which seems to jump a step back when we experience an object. Unlike every other aspect of experience — thoughts, emotions, desires, and functions — the observing self can be known but not located, not ‘seen’.”

The observing self is a waking state in which we dissociate from the external world and become aware of being aware, entering the daydreaming (REM) state just enough to allow us to review different aspects of reality — to see multiple contexts. But if we were to become absorbed to the same extent as when we are dreaming, our sense of reality would disappear. While daydreaming, our brains are still contextually aware, so that, when we stop introspecting, we know very quickly where we are and can reorient ourselves. Whereas, in the dream state, we are totally ‘associated’: completely lost in the dream.

That gives a fair description without telling us how to access the observing self or what it does. Russ Harris, writer of The Happiness Trap (Based on ACT: A revolutionary mindfulness-based programme for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression) gives us more:

The Observing Self is the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention. We don’t have a word for it in common everyday language – we normally just talk about the ‘mind’. But there    are two parts to the mind: the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. Without it, you couldn’t develop those    mindfulness skills. And the more you practice those mindfulness skills, the more you’ll become aware of this part of your mind, and able to access it when you need it.

Sounds good, but a bit mystical right? This modern approach does have some in common with meditation but Russ Harris is pragmatic and doesn’t associate it with religion or mysticism. What is this observing self. Is that who I am? Seems worth thinking on.

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to ‘Mindfulness Skills Volume 1 Track 05-The Observing Self’ by Russ Harris. You start out by paying attention to your breathing. Then he asks you to simply notice your breathing. As you notice your breathing you are aware that you are noticing. There is your breathing and there you are, noticing it. That is you, observing. You are your observing self. He says that things change but the you that notices does not change. He asks you to notice yourself thinking. There are your thoughts and there’s you, observing them. The observing you. There is part of you thinking and there is part of you observing the thoughts. The observing self.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...


Before reading this book I had no idea what ‘The Observing Self’ is or that I had one. I’m guessing this is true of most people. Let alone how to use it or what for. I was unmindful of mindfulness. I have been learning that mindfulness is about activating your self awareness, your ‘Observing Self’ and using that to live with your thoughts and feelings more comfortably.

Click for page 2